Updated: Apr 22
Rig Ved, the first known scripture of Hinduism, describes Devi as “Adi Para Shakti” – The supreme Divine cosmic energy that is the essence of universe, one that creates matter, soul, metaphysical and empirical realities, and the one who is eternal and infinite. (Devi Suktam, Mandal 10/Hymn 125)
Nari (woman) is the embodiment of that “Shakti”. How can we empower someone who herself personifies power? Simply put, we don’t need to empower women, we just need to remove the impediments de jure or de facto, the layer upon layer of irrational ideas and socio-cultural norms hoarded in her path that drain her energy. For a woman to make positive contributions, it’s the society that needs to evolve, just like for a seed to blossom, the soil needs to be fertile.
The history of humankind is almost synchronous with hierarchies. From Animism to Evolutionary Humanism, societies traversed through imagined hierarchies such as race and caste. While these hierarchies are waning gradually with social evolution, one that has lingered through eons is the hierarchy of gender – the hierarchy of men and women. Most societies across the globe have morphed into patriarchal including the ones in America, Afro-Asia, Aztecs and Incas and men managed to reserve for themselves the better deal, with rare exceptions.
The difference in men and women originated from biology. However, the ensuing laws, norms, rights, and obligations that differentiate men and women, are a product of the proverbial human imagination rather than a biological reality. For example, in the ancient Middle East or in Athens of the fifth century BC, women had no independent legal status, they couldn’t become a judge, engage in business or even in philosophical discourse. None of Athens’ political leaders, none of its great philosophers, orators, artists or merchants were women. There is no biological rationale that having a womb makes a person unfit for these professions. Sadly, such ideas were bolstered and endorsed by certain wide-spread theologies and in the decree of their holy scriptures.
Plenty of hypotheses have been proposed to justify the absolute superiority of men, none of them validated. The most prevailing theory points to the greater physical strength of men that allows them to execute tasks such as ploughing and harvesting thus rendering him the provider of the family. However, even if one accepts that logic despite its pitfalls, how can anyone extrapolate that to infer that women should be excluded from tasks that do not require muscle power, such as politics, law, and other strategic positions, while in all practicalities being forced into hard manual labor in the fields, crafts, and household chores? We do not elect Pharaoh, Pope, or President of a company/nation based on their physical strength. Even the success of the General in a war is not based on physical strength, but on abilities that require organization, cooperation, and strategy. A stable peaceful world is not achieved by physical power and brute force, but with tolerance, mildness, and clemency - virtues a woman personifies. History is replete with examples of women such Cleopatra of Egypt (c. BC 70), Empress Wu Zetian of China (c. AD 700), and Elizabeth I of England who not only ascended to the pinnacle of power defying all odds, but also stabilized and ruled over their kingdom for a considerable period.
However, all these examples pale in comparison to the matriarchal tradition of India that has endured since time immemorial. The very first known scripture of India, the Rig Veda is the only scripture out of all religions where the Divine Truths are revealed to women sages. Also, there are more than thirty women sages in Rig Ved including Gargi, Yami, Aditirdakshayani, Apala atreyi, Indrani, Urvashi, Godha, Gosha Kakshivati, Lopamudra, Maitreyi, and Juhurbramhajaya with specific hymns dedicated to them. There are numerous hymns in the Rig Ved indicating the high status given to women in Vedic society. The Rig Ved stated that the lady should choose her own husband; the daughter-in-law should be treated as a queen; and it’s incredible that the Rig Ved actually exhorts the bride to address the marriage assembly. While currently across the globe more than 750 million women and girls are married before the age of 18, the Rig Ved espoused the notion of marrying a girl only at a mature age.
The matriarchal system continued with Purans where every God is shown in consort of their wives, Shiv with Parvati, Vishnu with Laxmi, and Bramha with Saraswati. Even in the practice of Homam (ritual involving fire, and offerings to fire), every mantra or Shloka is addressed to Swaha, the wife of Agni, instead of Agni himself.
Elevated position of women in mediaeval India.
A man must permit his daughters to inherit (A 2.14.4).
There can be no division of property between a husband and a wife; they are linked inextricably together and have joint custody of the property (A 2.29.3).
A man is not allowed to abandon his wife (A 1.28.19).
Women are upholders of traditional lore, society should learn customs from women (A 2.15.9; 2.29.11). Apastamba sutra (c. 4th century BCE)
The prominence of women in India continued during the mediaeval period. While in 39 countries in the world of today, daughters and sons do not have equal inheritance rights; Apastaamba Puran recommended in 4th century BC that a man must permit his daughters to inherit the property. While in the current world, the women representation in national parliaments is only 23.7 percent, women didn’t have voting rights till 1893 when New Zealand became the first self-governing country to grant the voting power, and out of Fortune 500 companies only 38 have women CEOs, in the 6th century BC India, Queen Mṛgāvatī ruled as regent and Queen Kumara Devi ruled together with Chandrgupt; Prabhavatigupta, their daughter, continued this administrative tradition along with her husband, Rudrasena. There are innumerable additional accounts of women as ruling queens or regents across India in subsequent centuries such as Rudrama Devi of Kakatiya dynasty, Rani Durgavati, Jijabai, Tarabai, Keladi Chennamma, Mai Sukhan, Velu Nachiyar, and the famous Lakshmi bai of Jhansi, one of the principal leaders of the rebellion.
This ruling tradition was supplemented with historical evidence of higher education for women. Eminent institutions such as Takshila and Vikramshila had started enrolling large numbers of women for higher studies much before the time of Christ. These and several other universities including the acclaimed Nalanda flourished in India up to the 13th century. Afterwards, despite the erosion of society, Nari Shakti and scholarship continued with women like Lilavati — a 12th century legendary mathematician, Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi, India’s first woman physician, Hansa Mehta, noted writer and luminary from Gujarat, Kamala Sohonie, the first Bharatiya woman to receive a Ph.D in a scientific discipline and open the path for women to achieve excellence at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, and Lalleshwari, the literary gem of Kashmir.
With such glorious history, one wonders why and when the overall stature of women in India started declining. Chronology of events primarily associates such deterioration with the foreign invasions. After the 11th century, when such invasions started, women relegated gradually with the need of the hour and onslaught of newer customs such as Jauhar, hijab, and purdah. While there were men and women who fought back with valor to uplift the status of women, the mounting social pressures continued to pull them down through centuries.
Now that India has become free of the shackles of slavery almost after a millennium, it’s time we start decimating the scourges of society this prolonged slavery brought. It’s time we re-implement the momentous decree of Rig Ved that was a beacon of wisdom bestowed upon us at the dawn of humanity. Thousands of years later, women continue to reel under the burden of a distorted men mentality crippled by the manacles of segregation and discrimination. Thousands of years later, millions of women across the globe languish in the corners of society exiled from the mainstream and deprived of the unalienable rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Its time we remind ourselves of the glaring urgency of “Now”. In terms of women’s status, the society has evolved rapidly from the early nineteenth century Suffragette and is ripe for ‘Disruption’. Now is not the time to pursue the philosophy of ‘gradualism’, Now is the time to take decisive steps and march forward till every single daughter of India, nay the whole world, is educated, free of any fetters, and free of the fears of trials and tribulations. Now is the time to remember that if any, it is India who can rectify the course of humanity and rise to be the ‘Vishwaguru’ again.
Let’s revitalize through “Atmanam Viddhi” the glorious past of India that has been an enduring edifice of empowered women despite its periods of vicissitude. Last few centuries might have battered our psyche, but Bhartiya sanskriti that venerates women is too deeply ingrained in our heritage to be wiped out. It’s time we take a step back and reflect upon the odyssey of India that started with consecrated ideals of women revered and worshipped. It’s time we demonstrate the world that women are equipped to make sound judgements and together with men, are capable of making the world a better place. It’s time we revive our ancient wisdom and revisit our ancient scripture The Manu Smriti that proclaimed -
यत्र नार्यस्तु पूज्यन्ते, रमन्ते तत्र देवताः
(Where women are venerated, there lives the Divinity..)
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